Why Survivors Can Remember Certain Traumatic Events Vividly

Photo: Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images.
Today, Senator Dianne Feinstein asked Dr. Christine Blasey Ford how she could be so sure that it was Kavanaugh who sexually assaulted her in the early '80s. Dr. Ford responded in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee with poise and expertise that provided crucial context.
"The same way I’m sure that I’m talking to you right now," Ford said. "Just basic memory functions, and also just the level of norepinephrine and the epinephrine in the brain, that sort of, as you know, encodes. That neurotransmitter encodes memories into the hippocampus. So, the trauma-related experience is locked there whereas other details kind of drift."
Later, Senator Patrick Leahy asked Dr. Ford which memories stood out most from the night that she alleges Judge Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her. "Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two," she said, referring to Kavanaugh and Mark Judge, who she alleges was there the evening she was assaulted.
As a psychologist and a sexual assault survivor, Dr. Ford brings up an important point about trauma. We know that the hippocampus is the part of the brain that is involved in storing and creating new memories. When people are faced with a traumatic event, such as being sexually assaulted, they experience a surge of norepinephrine and cortisol, which are stress hormones that trigger a "fight or flight response." (Later, Dr. Ford said that it was the surge of adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine that allowed her to get out of the situation.) Because of all this brain activity, traumatic memories are not stored in the brain the same way that a regular event would be. Instead, trauma splits off, or is "locked," as Dr. Ford said, in the brain.

Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford
This is the reason why survivors can remember certain details of a sexual assault in full clarity, even ones that took place decades ago. The post-traumatic effects of an event like this are long-lasting, as Dr. Ford said in her letter to Senator Feinstein. Studies have shown that the hippocampus actually gets smaller when a person has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which indicates that the hippocampus isn't functioning the way it should. Often, this can lead to vivid or specific flashbacks of the event.
On Twitter, lots of viewers said they were impressed by Dr. Ford's ability to explain the physiological mechanisms that contributed to her trauma, as well as recount the story of her sexual assault. Dr. Ford managed to speak as a witness and an expert, at the same time. This hearing was a historic one for many reasons, but hopefully Dr. Ford's words will serve as a reminder that survivors don't want attention, they just want to be believed.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

More from Mind

R29 Original Series